Album Review

Posted: Tuesday 9th October 2007
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Francis Pott: The Cloud of Unknowing – MusicWeb International

Last year, when reviewing an outstanding CD of choral and organ music by Francis Pott I commented that I couldn’t wait to hear the recording of his new work, The Cloud of Unknowing, which he had written for the Vasari Singers and which they premièred in 2006. Well, here it is on disc.

In fact this very substantial new work was originally intended to be much more modest in scale. It was one of ten short anthems commissioned by Jeremy Backhouse and the Vasari Singers to celebrate the choir’s twenty-fifth anniversary in 2005. The other nine commissioned pieces were all recorded by the choir on a very fine CD, Anthems for the 21st Century (see review) but Francis Pott’s contribution was at that time incomplete for he had found that his inspiration needed a much bigger canvass.

Eventually The Cloud of Unknowing became a major work for tenor solo, mixed choir and organ, lasting nearly an hour and a half. The composer assembled his own libretto, drawing on a variety of texts. These include several of the Psalms; verses from the Old Testament Book of Joel; from the Book of Revelation; and from several poets. Among the selected poets are Thomas Traherne (1636-1674); William Blake (1757-1827); the English war poets, Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) and Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918); the Frenchman, René Arcos (1881-1959); and the Cretan poet and Nobel Prize winner, Odysseus Elytis (1911-1996). Finally, and crucially, in the concluding section of the work Pott uses words from the anonymous fourteenth century English mystical tract, which gives its name to the whole piece.

It would be unduly simplistic to describe The Cloud of Unknowing as an anti-war piece. However, it treats of and protests against man’s inhumanity to man, which is often manifested through warfare. As such, it seems to me to follow in a noble lineage that includes Dona Nobis Pacem by Vaughan Williams and Britten’s War Requiem. The first music to be composed was the setting of Psalm 23, with which the first of the work’s two parts closes. This was a direct response to the 2004 massacre at Beslan in Northern Ossetia when over three hundred people, 186 of them children, perished in a school siege involving Chechen separatists. In due course Pott moved on from this modest setting (it lasts about nine minutes) to a much more extended musical canvass in which he considers human cruelty and suffering in music that is often both graphic and harrowing. Tellingly, although the score is dedicated to Pott’s wife it also bears the following inscription: In memoriam: Margaret Hassan and all innocent lives lost in or beyond Iraq. Of this inscription the composer comments in his booklet note: “Invocation of one of Iraq’s more grievous individual losses is emblematic, and made without permission; the sentiment behind it one of personal revulsion at the hollow eulogies of western leaders mired in blood no less than those they would condemn.”

Thus does Pott unashamedly nail his colours to the mast and become the latest in a long line of distinguished artists, performing and creative, who have used their art to make a political or philosophical point. There may be some who will disagree with the polemic I have just quoted. Maybe so, but most emphatically any such disagreement should not be a reason for ignoring The Cloud of Unknowing – for passing by on the other side. For this piece, I believe, is an important artistic statement, which carries a powerful humanitarian message that is of relevance to people of all political persuasions.

The work is in two parts, though it plays continuously in performance, I understand. It is slightly too long to fit onto a single CD. Sensibly, therefore, the decision has been taken to put each part onto one disc and the break, when it comes, is not too inimical to continuity. In addition, the recording has been divided into tracks, seventeen for Part One and twelve for Part Two and since these tracks are indicated in the libretto, and referred to in the composer’s analytical note, this all helps the listener enormously.

The tenor soloist plays a crucial part, or perhaps I should say parts, for in his note Francis Pott has this to say: “The soloist typifies a deliberate tendency for identities to blur at particular moments throughout the work. At various points he will assume the guise of prophet, reluctant soldier, Christ figure or worldly Everyman. In essence his is the voice of human conscience, frequently drowned but still insistent amid the sound and fury of war.” Actually, one advantage of a recording is that, through judicious microphone placing, the soloist’s voice is invariably audible, though it is, rightly, a struggle at times. It is hard to imagine that the hugely demanding solo role could have a finer advocate than James Gilchrist. I’ve long admired his work but I don’t recall a performance on disc in which he’s surpassed his achievement here. Notice that I deliberately said “on disc” for not long ago I was fortunate enough to hear him deliver a superb live performance as the tenor soloist in Britten’s War Requiem (see review). Although Pott only uses words by Wilfred Own at a couple of points in the work I’m sure it’s no coincidence that with Gilchrist’s performance of the Owen settings in Britten’s great work still fresh in my memory I caught echoes and resonances from it several times during The Cloud of Unknowing.

Pott demands a huge vocal and emotional range – and great staying power – from his soloist but Gilchrist is equal to every one of the manifold challenges in the score. His voice is ideally suited for this music for it is essentially a light one, and so perfectly attuned to the many moments of intimacy in the score. However, Gilchrist has ample vocal power, when required, together with a touch of steel and so he’s more than capable of delivering the dramatic passages with bite. Whether singing quietly or full out his singing blazes with conviction at all times. I presume the music was written with his voice in mind; if so I suspect that Pott may have captured the essence of Gilchrist’s vocal persona pretty unerringly.

The independent organ part is of huge importance. This is no “mere” accompaniment; the organist is a leading protagonist in the piece. The part sounds to be hugely complex, requiring tremendous virtuosity and also great sensitivity. Of course, Jeremy Filsell fits those requirements perfectly and he plays with great skill, imagination and finesse. It’s also worth pointing out that great stamina is demanded of the organist; at least the singers get a breather from time to time but Filsell scarcely has more than an occasional few bars rest – and those rests are very infrequent – throughout the whole span of the piece. The organ part is of orchestral dimensions and I can pay Filsell no higher compliment than to say that never once did I wish the work had been written for orchestra. The engineers have captured the sound of the organ magnificently so that the many very quiet passages register atmospherically and truthfully while the frequent thunderous episodes are stunningly reported without any hint of distortion or overload. Thanks to the combined skills of organist and engineers the many complexities of the organ part are captured with marvellous clarity.

As for the Vasari Singers, their contribution is quite superb. There are some passages of relative simplicity – but I use the word “relative” advisedly, for even when Pott isn’t writing music of great complexity or demanding polyphony he gives his choir music which requires outstanding and unerring accuracy of tuning, rhythm and ensemble. Superficially, the setting for female voices only of Psalm 23, with which Part One closes, sounds fairly straightforward but this is only in comparison to the many pages of virtuoso music that have preceded it. Listen again, and more closely, and you will realise that even this fairly calm and direct music places great demands on the singers if it is to be put across as beautifully as is here the case. I believe that the vocal score runs to 290 pages and the choir is involved, I should say for at least fifty percent of the work. To learn such an amount of difficult music and then master it to such a degree as to give a performance as exciting and committed as this requires a top-flight choir and one, moreover, that is at the top of its form.

Of course, that degree of choral excellence implies an extraordinary conductor in charge of the ensemble. Jeremy Backhouse’s credentials as a choral conductor are well known. However, I wonder if he has done anything finer than this? Goodness knows how many hours of rehearsal were required to prepare this work. But Backhouse has done far, far more than teach his singers the notes. This is a performance that goes way beyond the printed page of the score. Indeed it’s one that, as all great performances do, takes the printed page merely as the starting point. It’s quite evident from the sweep and power of this performance that Jeremy Backhouse has got right behind the notes and into the very essence of the piece. He believes in the music and its message and he’s clearly communicated that belief to the performers. The score is given a reading of white-hot intensity and while I’m sure the recording is the product of several takes it has the feel of a single performance caught on the wing.

The music of Part One begins quietly, though it’s an uneasy quiet, pregnant with tension. We first hear a sombre organ prelude after which the choir enters with music that is flowing and liquid at first but which soon becomes more urgent and complex. in texture. The listener senses that all this is a prelude to something of significant import. Before long soloist and chorus together usher in visions of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The music gathers in power and intensity and the organ writing is frequently energetic and potent. The images of the Horsemen are quite frightening. Pott maintains the tension and drama for page after page, even on those occasions when the dynamic level of the music reduces.

Shortly afterwards words by René Arcos appear for the first time and in particular one line, which clearly has great significance for Pott: “The dead are all on the same side”. This is a powerful image of the waste and futility of violence and these words dominate proceedings for quite a while. They reappear in Part Two where, tellingly, they are conjoined with one of Wilfred Owen’s most celebrated lines: “I am the enemy you killed, my friend” from his poem, Strange Meeting.

However, that’s to anticipate. Arcos’s words appear for the first time during a passage of gripping intensity, which is the build up to the main climax of Part One. This climax is achieved when the choir sings some literally dreadful words from the Psalms: “Blessed be he that taketh their children and dasheth them against the stones”. This is a truly frightening climax and though there is more loud music shortly afterwards, notably in a fairly short but seething organ solo, you feel as if that aforementioned climax has sucked much of the venom out of the music and released it. The tumult subsides and Pott gives some words by Wilfred Owen to the tenor. Interestingly, however, his choice of text falls not on one of the war poems but on a letter – admittedly one containing very poetic imagery – written from the trenches by Owen to Osbert Sitwell. These words are set as a subdued recitativo against a very spare organ accompaniment and the combination of Owen’s words, the tenor voice and highly economical instrumental support are highly suggestive of War Requiem. After all the biting intensity of his singing in the preceding dramatic passages I found Gilchrist’s singing here to be absolutely mesmerising.

Immediately after this we hear the setting of Psalm 23 for SSAA chorus and organ that was the genesis of the whole work. It’s a reflective yet troubled setting and one of no little pathos. In it Pott responds to what he calls “the harrowing images of maternal distress” seen after the Beslan massacre and this explains his decision to use only women’s voices. Though superficially more gentle than much of the preceding music it’s just as emotional. In this state of uneasy calm Part One comes to a close.

Part Two begins with an extended tenor solo, setting words by Odysseus Elytis, describing the death of a soldier, shot in battle. The death is graphically depicted both by poet and composer. Gilchrist sings this long solo with riveting expressiveness and ensures that this moving section makes its full impact. Part way through the tenor’s solo the chorus sing quietly the words of Christ on the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” The restraint of the music here adds to the effect. A ghostly organ passage acts as a postlude after the soloist is done and then the choir sing words by Thomas Traherne. The music of this passage is like a still pool but even when the music is subdued I find that Pott sustains the tension. At the end of the Traherne section the soloist sings the juxtaposed words of Owen and Arcos that I mentioned earlier. This is a minor triumph of discernment for Pott in that the words could have been made for each other.

Soon after that we move into the Epilogue of the work and it’s here that the text is taken from The Cloud of Unknowing. The Epilogue begins with a flowing organ prelude. This gives way to a plaintively liquid tenor solo, which eventually becomes more affirmative. The tenor continues in this affirmative vein while, underneath, the choir sings words from Psalm 90. The ecstatic and chromatic choral writing in this section put me in mind of Herbert Howells at times. For me the music achieves particular eloquence when the soloist sings “And therefore lift up thy head with a blind stirring of love; For if it begin here, it shall last without end.” Though Francis Pott doesn’t says so explicitly in his notes I wonder if these words are the kernel, the message, of the whole piece.

The choir’s music now becomes increasingly complex and loud, the polyphony intertwining more and more. At times, valiantly though they sing, it seems as if the choir are in danger of being overwhelmed, both vocally and emotionally, by the hugely demanding music but they win through to achieve a wonderful climax, which spills over into “Amen”. Now it seems the music is winding down, becoming more tranquil. But in a final coup, Pott rudely interrupts the serenity with an anguished reminder of Christ’s cry from the cross, this time sung, harrowingly, by the soloist. But then a state of calm is reached at last as the choir sings an extended final Amen. The work ends with one last, enigmatic and hushed organ chord, which lasts for some 28 seconds and which, in the composer’s words, “enfolds all in its own seemingly eternal cloud of unknowing.”

I think it’s premature to make a definitive judgement of the artistic stature of The Cloud of Unknowing. The work is too new. It’s also too raw in my consciousness. Such a verdict can only be reached over time, once it has settled with the listener and once, I hope, a performance tradition has been established. However, already I am confident that this is a work of great importance and one that not only stands firmly in the proud tradition of English choral music but that also carries that tradition forward and enriches it. It’s an eloquent and hugely compelling work, which I find very convincing.

Francis Pott’s cause is helped immeasurably, as I’m sure he’ll gratefully acknowledge, by the superb artistry of all the performers involved here. The singing and organ playing is absolutely superb and the engineers have captured the music in a recording that combines ambience and thrilling realism. I can’t commend Signum highly enough for having the vision and the commercial courage to issue this recording.

I listened, enthralled, to this major addition to the choral repertoire. Last year Francis Pott’s was among my choices for Recordings of the Year and after hearing this marvellous, eloquent new release I’m sure history will repeat itself in 2007.

MusicWeb International